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On this Day, in 1848: the Hungarian Revolution broke out against Habsburg absolutism

On March 15, 1848, inspired by the upheavals of 1848 in Paris and Vienna, the Hungarian Revolution broke out in Pest and Buda against the absolutist rule of the Habsburg Monarchy.

Seen by many Hungarians as the decisive downward turning point in their country’s history, Suleiman the Magnificent’s victory at the Battle of Mohács in 1526 marked the end of Hungary as a unified and independant entity and led to the partition of the medieval kingdom between the Habsburg Monarchy, the Ottoman Empire and the Principality of Transylvania for nearly two hundred years.

By the end of the 17th century, the Battle of Vienna and the second Battle of Mohács set the stage for the reconquest of Hungary, and in 1699, the Treaty of Karlowitz, which concluded the Great Turkish War, marked the end of Ottoman control in Central Europe and enabled Vienna to claim all of Hungary, effectively ending the trisection of the newly enlarged Habsburg dominion.

A newly enlarged dominion

But unlike other Habsburg ruled areas, the Kingdom of Hungary retained its old historic constitution, which limited the power of the Crown and greatly increased the authority of the parliament, the Diet of Hungary. Even after the foundation of the Austrian Empire in 1804, Hungary’s central government structures remained well separated from the imperial government.

By the start of the 19th century, Hungary had become a major grain and wool exporter, as urbanization in Austria and Bohemia, and the need for supplies for the Napoleonic wars boosted demand for foodstuffs and clothing. But following Napoleon’s final defeat, grain prices collapsed as demand dropped, and debt ensnared much of Hungary’s lesser nobility.

Economic hardship brought the lesser nobles’ discontent to a head in 1825, when the Emperor finally convoked the Diet after a fourteen-year hiatus. Grievances were voiced, and open calls for reform were made by a small group of prominent aristocrats who advocated for radical changes to overcome the industrial and political backwardness of the country. But those efforts were vehemently opposed by the government in Vienna, who wanted Hungary, with its rich agriculture and plentiful sources of raw materials, to remain the pantry of the empire and a market for Austrian and Bohemian industrial goods.

Beneath the surface, Hungarian society, affected by the ideas of the French Revolution and of nationalism, was preparing for emancipation, spearheaded by the talented orator, Lajos Kossuth…

The Hungarian revolution and the Spring of Nations

The Hungarian reformers’ opportunity came in the spring of 1848. Inspired by the Revolution of 1848 in Paris, a popular upheaval caused the breakdown of central authority in Vienna. And on March 15, a bloodless revolution in Pest, led by young intellectuals, including the poet Sándor Petőfi, formulated a series of demands, among them freedom of the press, and civil and religious equality.

Mass demonstrations in Buda and Pest forced the Emperor to sign the so-called April Laws, inspired by Lajos Kossuth, which abolished serfdom and made peasants the owners of the land they cultivated. The Hungarian kingdom became a constitutional monarchy, the Diet was replaced by a representative parliament, and Count Lajos Batthyány became the first Prime Minister of Hungary. After France in 1791 and Belgium in 1831, Hungary became the third country of Continental Europe to hold democratic elections.

But the new government had enemies: the conservatives resented the land reform, and the centralists regarded the independent ministry as dangerous to the integrity of the monarchy. They found allies among the disaffected nationalities, who soon started to demand autonomy for themselves, something which was not appreciated by the Hungarian politicians.

Taking advantage of the Hungarians’ unwillingness to afford their own minorities what they were demanding from Austria, the Imperial court in Vienna, who regarded the April Laws as mere temporary measures, began secretly supporting conspiracies to undermine the new government, inciting the various national movements to revolt.

War on all fronts

Tension between Vienna and Buda-Pest mounted steadily, and in September, on Vienna’s orders, the Viceroy of Croatia and Dalmatia, Josip Jelačić, attacked Hungary and started marching towards Pest. In serious military crisis due to the lack of soldiers and with war now raging on three fronts (Croatian troops to the South, Romanians in Banat and in Transylvania to the East, and Austria to the west), the Hungarian government roused the people to the defense of the country.

The newly formed Hungarian Revolutionary Army (Honvéd) repulsed Jelačić’s forces near Pákozd on September 29 and crossed the border into Austria forcing an open confrontation with the Imperial army. But after a series of serious Austrian defeats and with the Austrian Empire coming close to the brink of collapse, the young emperor Franz Joseph I called for Russian help and Tsar Nicholas I answered, sending 200,000 soldiers to the rescue.

Realizing that a peaceful compromise with the Habsburgs could not be found, Batthyány resigned, leaving Kossuth in charge, and by April 1840, a rump Diet proclaimed the full independence of Hungary and the deposition of the Habsburg dynasty. Bitter fighting went on for weeks, led by György Klapka and other generals, but the odds were too heavy.

On August 12, Kossuth fled the country, transferring his authority to Görgey, who the next day surrendered at Világos to the Russian commander. Savage reprisals followed the fall of the Hungarian Revolution and the restoration of Habsburg power, as Hungary was placed under brutal martial law for nearly twenty years.

Aftermath of the Hungarian revolution of 1848

Kossuth went into exile after the Hungarian Revolution, initially gaining asylum in the Ottoman Empire, before being invited by the US Congress to come to the United States. He remained there until 1852, after which he moved to England and then Italy, with the hope of one day returning to Hungary. He never did.

Military dictatorship and absolutist rule over Hungary lasted until 1867, when the Austro-Hungarian Compromise established the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary and partially re-established the former sovereignty of the Kingdom of Hungary. The agreement also restored the country’s old historic constitution.

Today, the anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution is celebrated every year on March 15 as one of the country’s three national holidays.

Find out more about Central European history in our new On this Day series.